Kenyans On Edge As Election Irregularities Mount

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Political turmoil is also stalking Kenya, where voters went to the polls this weekend to elect a new president. The ballots are still being counted, but preliminary results show Uhuru Kenyatta leading by a wide margin. He's under indictment by the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in the wave of ethnic violence that consumed Kenya after the last presidential vote n 2007. Many Kenyans are worried that ballot disputes after this year's vote could lead to more bloodshed. Reporter Michela Wrong is in Nairobi.

Michela Wrong: I think people will tell you that the price they paid after the last elections was so high there was 700,000 people displaced, over a thousand people killed, the economy went into a nose dive, but they'll say to you we learned our lesson, we're not gonna go down that route again. But of course, the stakes are very, very high and both of the two main political parties are convinced they can win and so this is almost a titanic struggle between two large ethnic groupings who feel that they have been struggling for power in this country ever since independence.

Werman: Is there more patience this time around? I mean and is there any violence that you've seen?

Wrong: I think this is a more poisonous atmosphere. There's more rapid ethnic hatred in the air than there ever has been in this country. You cannot minimize the fact that there has been a political game played here by the elite, which has ripped up ethnic rivalry, ethnic antagonism. And that's very dangerous. We've seen what that leads to in other African countries.

Werman: Michela, step back a bit and talk about some of the pitfalls outsiders encounter when writing about Kenya's election. You just talked about the interethnic rivalries and I notice that you did not use the "t" word, tribe. That can get you into trouble, can't it, with some people in Africa and people in Kenya.

Wrong: Yes, I mean the "t" word, tribe, is something that is you use that word and you say Kenya is a very tribal society, you will often be criticized by academics, members of the Kenyan diaspora and members of the middle classes. But when you meet Kenyans they are very unabashed about talking about tribe. They use the phrase themselves. They'll say we're a very tribal society. And I think what's very striking here is that there was very little discussion of what policies the various aspirants, the candidates were proposing…you know, where they stood on the economy. I mean we never really got to hear that much about that because it's all down to these kind of tribal mathematics with several large ethnic communities who group up together and then they know that they've got the numbers and they can win the elections.

Werman: You've described how ethnic grid lines crisscross Kenya. Explain that.

Wrong: Well, I got very struck. I went up the Riff Valley last week. In one area where were touring around there was a little path, and on one side lived the Kikuyu and on the other side lived the Kalenjin. And you know, you sensed that this was a real ghettoization and in fact, I was told in this area that on the main road which divides the two communities, the American ambassador has visited once. And because there's such dislike between these two communities, he had to have a meeting in the middle of the asphalt to sign two separate guest books because there was so much hostility between the two sides. Which side you're on will mean that you can or can't get onto tartu

Werman: The taxis, bush taxis.

Wrong: That's right and you may not want to get into a matartu that's driven by someone from another ethnic community. Or you may not want to buy tomatoes in a store that's run by someone from a different community. Now, that's by no means the case everywhere in Kenya, but there are places where land, which is a massive issue in Kenya…land disputes are really the festering wound of Kenya, where feelings are running so high that there's this sort of ghettoization that has developed.

Werman: So Michela, what's the future of tribal alliances in Kenya? Do Kenyans seem to want to break out of these tribal bonds? Can they be forgotten?

Wrong: In theory, the constitution is gonna start tackling that, but it's gonna take a long time and it hasn't really had any effect yet because it's only just been introduced. With good areas in Kenya, for example, like in western Kenya, where there has never been a president from that area, you will find that there's no local airport, access to water is nothing like as good as it is elsewhere in Kenya. The roads are in a terrible state and this is what happens. Your guy's not in power, you're completely out in the cold. And that's why the contest for power can be so vicious in Kenya, that you have to have a state where the institutions work for everyone.

Werman: Journalist Michela Wrong in Nairobi for the presidential elections there in Kenya. She's the author of several books about Africa, including It's Our Turn to Eat, the story of a Kenyan whistleblower. Michela, thank you.

Wrong: Okay, it's a pleasure.